Consecrated in 1584, the church boasted an interior decoration worthy of its status as the central church of the Jesuits. The exhibition artfully illustrates the kind of familiar iconography used early on in the decoration of the side chapels. But when Ignatius and his missionary companion Francis Xavier were canonized in 1622, the way opened to develop special symbolism for both saints. A major loan from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Domenichino’s Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s Vision of Christ and God the Father at La Storta (ca. 1622), typifies many other interpretations of the scene. While praying in a small chapel outside Rome, Ignatius beholds God the Father entrusting him to Jesus, who bears his cross on his shoulder and tells Ignatius that “I will be favorable to you in Rome.” In the background stand Ignatius’s companions, Peter Faber and Diego Lainez. The imagery is urgent, immediate, and fully rounded, bringing heaven and earth as close together as possible.
For Francis Xavier the comparable iconic scene depicts his death on the island of Sancian off the coast of China, surrounded by disciples and native converts. A moving study (modello) of the scene by Giovanni Battista Gaulli (ca. 1682) startlingly shows the saint in the very moment of death, ashen-faced, the crucifix falling from his hand. Other iconic treatments in the exhibition include a striking small bronze of Ignatius with saints and martyrs of the Jesuit order, designed ca. 1629 by Alessandro Algardi, and a pair of bronzes by Francesco Bertos (ca. 1720–1725) of Ignatius with a book bearing the letters AMDG (“Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam,” the motto of the Order) and Xavier with his hand to his ardent heart and an angel holding his crucifix. (All three pieces are loans from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)
Under the generalate of Fr. Gian Paola Oliva, SJ, an astute politician and Preacher to the Papal Court for over twenty years, a full campaign for the enhancement of the nave, dome, and apse of the church was begun. On the advice of his close friend Bernini, Oliva chose the hitherto unheralded Gaulli (also known as Il Baciccio) for the commission. After completing a Vision of Paradise in the dome, Gaulli turned to the immense nave and there executed one of the wonders of the seventeenth century, The Triumph of the Name of Jesus. Centered on the Christogram in blinding light, and surrounded by a multitude of figures, including stuccoed reprobates who tumble from the edge of the frame and seem to fall directly down toward viewers, the brilliance of color and illusionistic technique are likewise triumphant—and marvelously represented in the show by a superb modello (1676–1679) lent generously by the Princeton University Art Museum.
In a curatorial coup, Wolk-Simon positions directly opposite this modello one of the treasures from the Gesù itself, Gaulli’s painted model for his apse fresco, The Adoration of the Lamb (1690). Oil on canvas laid down on wood, this large, brilliantly coloristic piece guided the artist in planning the final fresco in the apse—a soaring assembly of worshippers before a golden altar and the Lamb of God. Short of a visit to the church in Rome, it is hard to imagine a stronger sense of the ensemble from nave to apse. (Linking them effectively, in the middle of the gallery, is a magnificent chasuble given to the church by Cardinal Farnese [ca. 1575-1589] and another piece from the Gesù.)